Setting the Bar

Arts of the Song dynasty

Gallery 15

China’s Song dynasty established many prototypes in government, society, and the arts. A system of schools and examinations for entering public office led to an efficient, centralized government headed by the emperor but staffed by well-educated commoners. Emerging as a class of scholar-officials, who were both artists themselves and consumers of art, these men looked to ancient tradition as a source for moral principle and creative inspiration.

At the same time, a spirit of inquiry and close examination of nature led to advances in art and science. Widespread gains in literacy and disposable income also stimulated growth in the arts.

Elegance and refinement in form, line, and color characterize the visual arts of China during the Song dynasty. As new technology enhanced ceramic production and the number of kilns rose, fresh approaches to decoration developed. The rise of ink painting paralleled a taste for monochrome ceramic glazes. A multitude of other painting styles and techniques emerged as well, with a strong preference for realistic detail, modulated colors, and individualized faces and postures.